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Top PR Firms Promise They Won't Edit Clients' Wikipedia Entries on the Sly

Edelman, Burson-Marsteller Among Those Signing Pledge

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Several of the largest public-relations agencies issued a joint statement Tuesday promising to play by the rules of Wikipedia. It comes after years of PR agencies surreptitiously editing their clients' pages on the site, much to the dismay of Wikipedia's volunteer editors.

In the statement, 11 PR agencies "publicly state and commit" to abide by five principles that would prevent them from editing a client's Wikipedia entry without first going through proper channels. It also makes overtures toward repairing the tenuous relationship between the PR industry and Wikipedia.

The firms that signed the statement are Edelman, Ogilvy & Mather, Fleishman Hillard, Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Porter Novelli, Peppercomm, MDC Partners, Voce Communications, Allison & Partners and Beutler Ink.

"On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia's unique and important role as a public knowledge resource," the statement begins. "We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors. Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices."

Phil Gomes, senior-VP at Edelman Digital, called Tuesday's statement a "formalized milestone" for the PR industry and Wikipedia community. "There needs to be more from PR than subterfuge and more from Wikipedia than shame," he said.

In October, Wikipedia's parent organization, Wikimedia Foundation, issued a statement of its own "condemning the black hat practice of paid advocacy editing and sockpuppeting on Wikipedia." The statement came after volunteer editors investigated more than 300 accounts they believed to be fakes, or "sockpuppets," belonging to one PR agency, the Austin, Tex.-based Wiki-PR.

Wiki-PR did not respond to an Ad Age email by press time, but CEO Jordan French defended his company's practices in an interview with Business Insider. "They made a bunch of errors and confused us with someone else, largely," Mr. French said.

"There's a long-standing tension between the PR world and Wikipedia editors," said Bill Beutler, president of Beutler Ink, one of the agencies that signed the statement issued today. Wikipedia editors "don't trust PR practitioners because they make edits about their companies or bosses that are in their own self interest," according to Mr. Beutler, whose agency has offered Wikipedia consultation since 2008. He has also volunteered as a Wikipedia editor apart from his duties as a PR consultant.

PR agencies and consultants are often hired to manage the Wikipedia page for a company, organization or individual, but Wikipedia strongly discourages people from editing articles where there might exist a conflict of interest, including business or financial.

"If you are a paid advocate, then you should refrain from editing articles directly," said Mr. Beutler. "But PR people can contribute by making sure correct information is made correct."

And what happens when an unhappy client calls its agency asking them to remove or edit something on its Wikipedia page? According to Mr. Beutler, these agencies should go to Wikipedia's "talk" areas and make their case about why an article should be edited. "This works," he said. "But it doesn't work terribly efficiently," he added.

In 2011, the U.K.-based agency Bell Pottinger was caught editing Wikipedia articles on behalf of its clients, prompting a rebuke from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who said the agency suffered from "ethical blindness."

"There's always a new case of someone getting their hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar," Mr. Beutler said. "It's been frustrating to me that whenever PR comes up in the news it's because they've done something they shouldn't."

Mr. Beutler was instrumental in organizing a roundtable discussion in February in Washington, D.C., where PR professionals and several Wikipedia editors discussed their tenuous relationship. The statement issued Tuesday sprang from that meeting, according to Mr. Beutler.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the PR industry's professional organization in the U.K., began offering its members guidance on how to interact with the Wikipedia community in 2012

No trade organizations, including the Public Relations Society of America, took part of today's statement. "We certainly hope to engage them in conversation moving forward," said Sam Ford, director of audience engagement at Peppercomm, another agency that signed the statement.

"We don't see this as a publicity stunt, but as the first part of an ongoing conversation," he added.

Here's the statement in its entirety:

Statement on Wikipedia from Participating Communications Firms

On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia's unique and important role as a public knowledge resource. We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors. Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices. We therefore publicly state and commit, on behalf of our respective firms, to the best of our ability, to abide by the following principles:

· To seek to better understand the fundamental principles guiding Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.

· To act in accordance with Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, particularly those related to "conflict of interest."

· To abide by the Wikimedia Foundation's Terms of Service.

· To the extent we become aware of potential violations of Wikipedia policies by our respective firms, to investigate the matter and seek corrective action, as appropriate and consistent with our policies.

· Beyond our own firms, to take steps to publicize our views and counsel our clients and peers to conduct themselves accordingly.

We also seek opportunities for a productive and transparent dialogue with Wikipedia editors, inasmuch as we can provide accurate, up-to-date, and verifiable information that helps Wikipedia better achieve its goals.

A significant improvement in relations between our two communities may not occur quickly or easily, but it is our intention to do what we can to create a long-term positive change and contribute toward Wikipedia's continued success.

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